By María Jimena Duzán, CAMBIOColombia, November 5, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The re-opening of relations with the Nicolás Maduro government will be neither easy nor rapid. That was my conclusion from the meeting that Gustavo Petro had with the President of Venezuela last week in the Miraflores Palace.

The meeting was short, not to say fleeting, and Maduro’s reception of Petro was perfunctory, almost as gray as the storm clouds that greeted us at the Maiquetía airport.

A half hour later, Petro and his small retinue entered the Miraflores Palace in Caracas. The two Presidents greeted each other without a lot of effusiveness and after a brief military parade they disappeared into the corridors of the Palace. After the customary photo, taken in a grandiose salon protected by an immense portrait of the Liberator, and after Maduro showed Petro the sword of Bolívar, telling him that this is “the original”, they headed for lunch.

They tell me that the lunch proceeded cordially, but with no major conclusions. Maduro was accompanied by several Ministers, starting with Delcy Rodríguez, his Minister of Foreign Relations, by the Minister of Agriculture, by the Defense Minister, and by Venezuela’s Ambassador in Colombia. Petro only brought his Foreign Minister, Álvaro Leyva, Colombia’s Ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, the Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OEA in Spanish), Luis Ernesto Vargas, and Laura Sarabia, his Chief of Staff, who was shadowing him.

They talked about everything at the meeting, except for the hot topics. Petro didn’t talk about the ELN, nor about their presence in Venezuelan territory, but he did talk about “total peace”. Maduro announced that his country was disposed to send new fertilizer mixtures to Colombia at particularly low prices, 51 percent of the price at the Monómeros Company from Barranquilla.

The only awkward territory they touched on was related to the mafias that control the border, a subject that had been revived a few days earlier by Gustavo Petro himself in a speech in Cúcuta. On that occasion the President said he was disappointed to see how, after the border had been re-opened for a month, the illegal trails remained open, permitting the illegal groups to use them. He accused officials of both countries of being connected to the mafia networks.

I understand that the statements by Petro were not appreciated in Miraflores, and that that was the reason for Maduro making the only emphatic statement seen at the lunch, and he told Petro that his country was fully involved in the fight against the criminal gangs that were at the border.

After the lunch, the two Presidents had a private meeting that lasted one hour exactly. We don’t know what they talked about behind closed doors, but one of the issues had to do with the proposal that Venezuela return to the Inter-American Human Rights System. I say they had to take this on in private—it wasn’t mentioned at the lunch either—because Maduro referred to that marginally at the press conference the two of them held after they finished their closed-door meeting. Maduro’s speech lasted no longer than five minutes and was so restrained that it sounded perfunctory.

Petro’s statement, on the other hand, was not as short and was more risky, because it focused directly on the proposal that Venezuela return to the Inter-American Human Rights System, an audacious idea that is totally improbable. Venezuela left the system in the time of Chávez, claiming that it disagreed with the CIDH convictions of Venezuela on human rights cases. If it returns, it would have to carry out the Court’s orders, and we can’t see Maduro taking that path.

That proposal is non-viable, but it serves Petro by putting human rights on the table and, by the way, quieting the critics that were accusing him of turning a blind eye to the deterioration of democracy that Venezuela is experiencing.

The press conference was short but tense and made it clear that this reopening would be slow going. After his decision to dollarize the economy, Maduro fears that many of those dollars are going to Colombia and is producing the migration of Colombians to Venezuela, which could affect the economic recovery that’s going on in his country. His decision to go slower also has to do with the character of his regime and with his fears that there will always be schemes and conspiracies against him.

That appointment was crucial for the two countries for many reasons. Colombia has five million Colombians on the border who felt they had been left to their fate for five years, when then-President Iván Duque decided not to recognize the Chavista regime and accepted the interim Guaidó administration as the representative of the Venezuelan people. Venezuela has a border that’s been kidnapped by the mafia; with half the ELN in Venezuelan territory. It’s also isolated because of the sanctions imposed by the United States.

We were thinking that after the failure of the diplomatic fence imposed by Duque, he had condemned us to take care of bi-national problems through an imaginary President, a fake, like Guaidó, and that re-opening relations with Venezuela would be an easy matter, but it’s not going to be that way.

The two Presidents attended the meeting wearing the same outfits: black pants and white shirts; however, in spite of their similar aesthetic, the differences could not be disguised. Gustavo Petro is a democrat and Nicolás Maduro is an autocrat. When they take the photo, the democrat is always the one left out.

This is a meeting that had to take place. Now they have to demonstrate that they are both capable of remaking a binational policy, thinking about their people and not about the pettiness of power.

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